AOTUS: Reparative Description at NARA

February 2022

David S. Ferriero
Archivist of the United States

 In the summer of 2020, I chartered an agency-wide Task Force on Racism. One of the recommendations from the Task Force was to establish a working group that would develop an agency-wide approach to reparative description. Yale University Library notes that reparative archival description “aims to remediate or contextualize potentially outdated or harmful language used in archival description and to create archival description that is accurate, inclusive, and community-centered.”

 I chartered NARA’s Reparative Description and Digitization Working Group in July 2021, and the group has been meeting regularly since. The group includes experts from across the agency with a variety of skill sets, grade levels, and backgrounds. Recently, the working group developed an initial set of Guiding Principles for reparative description based on reviews and discussions of numerous institutions’ principles. The Cataloging Lab provides a long list of statements on bias in library and archives description.

We developed and finalized six guiding principles:

  1. TransparencyWe will find innovative ways to inform the public about the origin of our archival descriptions, including whether the language is original to the record’s creator or was written by NARA staff. Where feasible, we will maintain and make available old/outdated versions of descriptions. We will create simple, accessible ways for users to give feedback, and we will publicly document our efforts on our website so that we can be held accountable and further maximize NARA’s value to all of our users.
  2. Language—We recognize the vastness of NARA’s holdings and descriptive metadata, and we commit to using innovative methods to find, assess, and repair descriptions with harmful terminology, valorizing terminology, and underdescription. We will seek to use individuals’ and communities’ preferred terminology while recognizing that including outdated terminology in descriptions can provide researchers with important context and access points into historical records. We will work to alert users to such language and explain why archives workers have included it so we can truly make access happen for all.
  3. Institutional change—We commit to a deliberative and thoughtful approach to archival description (including appraisal, processing, re-processing, digitization, and cataloging) that allows for community collaboration and cultural humility. We recognize the years of hard work put into achieving past description goals and providing basic access to our holdings, as well as the efforts of individual archives workers across NARA to implement reparative description. We commit to supporting archives staff and building our future through our people as we ask for their time and expertise to move forward.
  4. Collaboration—We will listen to and seek ongoing input from marginalized people, colleagues within and outside of the archives field, and peer institutions about our descriptive practices. We will not only connect with our current users but also work to build and rebuild relationships with these communities through specifically acknowledging past wrongs, being transparent about our limitations, and following through on our commitments.
  5. Iterative/reflective process—We will commit to making reparative description an ongoing, iterative process, not a one-time project. We welcome and will seek to implement public, stakeholder, and staff feedback, and we will continuously reflect upon our process to identify ways to improve.
  6. Leadership—We acknowledge that people and organizations representing marginalized communities have led the archives profession in developing reparative description best practices, and we continue to learn from their work. We will seek to recognize their leadership and build on lessons learned as we work to fulfill NARA’s own potential as a leader for government archives in implementing large-scale reparative description.

NARA is also developing  the structure and processes for updating harmful terms in the National Archives Catalog and developing ways to bring this work into the mainstream archival practices of the agency. You can follow our progress at Reparative Description on Archives.gov. We have a long road ahead, but with a sense of both humility and hope, we are making strides to collaborate, innovate, and learn as we go. 

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